How can you tell whether something in the text in front of you is a) brilliantly original, b) a hackneyed cliché that you just hadn't come across before, or c) a reference, homage or allusion to or quote from a particular person or work?
The question arises from the way our unbridled delight in the line "Still composing at an age when most people are doing the opposite" (see below) was dampened by someone who muttered darkly: "Yes. Very smart, But it's just a quote from Monty Python."
Well, he was right, more or less. There is an excellent Python song called Decomposing Composers, and it just so happened that we hadn't stumbled across it. So we gave awed credit to Mark Lawson of the BBC for what may have been no more than an opportunistic adaption of an old Michael Palin ditty.
In the transient, informal world of bloggery, that's no great disaster. But the question remains: how can you avoid this kind of problem in a more serious business context?
And the answer, as so often in e-editing, is to turn to Google.
Just tap your key words or phrase into the Google search box.
Look at what the initial search throws up (in this case, hundreds of references to mathematics and software — two fields where the juxtaposition of "composing" and "decomposing" could hardly be expected to trigger joy or amusement).
Choose a few of the terms that occur most frequently as your "exclusion keywords" and enter them into the search box, each with a minus sign in front ("-numbers" and "-systems" worked well here). This will slash the number of results when you search again.
Keep doing this until you winnow out most of the irrelevant technical references, then scan through the first page or two of returns from your latest search.
If you see an obvious source for the turn of phrase you're interested in, you can then follow it up easily. If there are few uses of the phrase left, you can be reasonably sure it's not an overworked cliché.
But if there are almost none, what then? Why, then there may be someone in your office who is producing genuinely original material the world has never before enjoyed. And that would be a pretty scary thought for most of us.
Wonderful, Wildean words the other evening, in an unexpectedly fascinating Radio 4 Front Row interview piece on American composer Elliott Carter.
Carter, who is 95, was in Britain for the premiere of one of his recent compositions.
He talked movingly of his friends and colleagues and his place in the history of 20th-century music. He knew Stravinsky and Holst ("he didn't like my pieces") and became great friends with Charles Ives ("met him in 1923... got to know him well... he disliked my music and I didn't like his") and Aaron Copland ("one of my best friends, all my life... he thought my pieces were too complicated").
But they're all long gone and he's still going strong. How was Carter so full of new music at 95, asked Mark Lawson. "Well, I can't say I'm full of anything else any more," came the reply.
The interview ended, and then came the brilliant coup de grâce from Lawson.
"Elliott Carter," he said, signing off. "Still composing at an age when most people are doing the opposite."
What's the biggest error you've ever seen introduced into a piece of copy because of a single missing or misplaced character?
We only ask because one of the old warhorses reared its ugly head again today. Everything was looking good and we were just about to publish when we spotted it.
"Millions?" we thought. The figures seemed low. Very low. Hmmm. A quick bit of improvised Googling and we had the answer. "Ah, yes. Billions. That makes more sense."
One character changes, and you have market statistics that change by a factor of 1,000. That's quite a serious difference, especially if the material you produce depends on carrying with it an air of authority and credibility.
At times, though, there's something quite poetic about the metamorphoses that single-character errors can trigger.
For sheer elegance, relevance and transformational power, you can't beat the impact of swapping the "t" in Hertfordshire for an "e". It's wonderful. Get that one letter wrong and you gain an extra syllable and a dramatic 200-kilometre shift to the west, from the sedate Home Counties to the wild hills of the Welsh borders.
The professional point to watch is that automation won't help you here. Spellcheckers can be useful for a final sweep through edited copy, but they wouldn't pick up either "millions/billions" or "Hertfordshire/Herefordshire".
When it comes to the crunch, you're always on your own. It's just you and the text. It's living by your wits that makes it hard. But then again, that's what guarantees they won't be able to replace you with some ingenious little macro.
We're building up to a new page on the main site, concerned with numbers, probabilities, percentages and all that down-to-earth stuff that can go so badly wrong if you take your eye off the ball.
For e-editors, often working in the kind of situation where getting the figures wrong can cost real money, this aspect of the job is important.
Yet we're always amazed to see what panic a few share price movements, consumer survey results or market share statistics can provoke in otherwise confident and cool-headed copy editors.
So the idea is to keep it very simple, very clear and very practical. But the best antidote of all to this queasy feeling of numerical insecurity is to buy yourself a copy of a brilliant little paperback called Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos, an American professor of both maths and journalism.
We've had three copies — all lent, all gone and all, I'm sure, being put to very good use to this day. You can't resent the way they fly the nest. In fact, it's quite likely that these particular copies have moved on to their third or fourth owners by now.
Innumeracy looks at stock markets and plane crashes, gambling and elections, propaganda and polls, economics and clinical trials, luck, fate and crime.
It explodes dozens of myths and fallacies about chance, risk and probabilities.
It points out how politicians, advertisers and journalists use bent maths and junk science to warp perceptions of the world around us — and shows us how to do it for our own (unimpeachable) ends.
In short, it's fun, exciting and just exactly what you thought a book about statistics and numbers could never, ever be. For a quick taster, read some of the pieces reprinted on the professor's eccentric and engagingly primitive Web site, at www.math.temple.edu/~paulos. Then go and buy the book. It could change the way you look at figures.
Just back from a few days spent in American business circles — and feeling the usual mixture of admiration and contempt for the way these people use and abuse the language.
As usual, it’s the energy and unexpectedness of the spontaneous spoken word that delights the ear, while the leaden, deadened thud of the written and scripted material gets the teeth grinding.
There wasn’t much in the way of “attritting” and “incenting” to squirm over this time. But there was plenty of low-level word abuse, a lot of it concerned with bombast, redundancy and repetition.
On the basis of this brief sample, there are three key phrases to watch out for in 2004.
1. In any way, shape or form
2. It can – and will – (do something or other)
All of these seem to be much in vogue, and all should get any self-respecting e-editor lunging for the red pen, without too much hesitation about possible justifications for letting them survive.
“In any way, shape or form” is everywhere — a nasty, empty, self-important little cliché that is used shamelessly (even, in some cases, by people who will then go on to lecture you, without irony, about the need to keep copy concise and avoid repetition).
"It can — and will —" is maddening, because if it "will", then it goes without saying that it "can".
In spoken English, it's just about possible to claim that "and will" may be arriving as an afterthought, about 0.3 of a second behind the original notion.
In writing, such sensitive dramatic timing is no more than a half-baked literary conceit. If the writer doesn't know what he or she is going to say a second or two in advance, we should probably be spared what follows.
"And/or" seems to be back in town, too. Entirely legitimate in a tiny handful of instances, it is one of those phrases where the experienced e-editor knows it is usually best to delete first and ask questions afterwards. Yet the phrase still seems to return for another run every few years, as if by popular request.
We should only be using "and/or" when it is strictly true that two things may be linked or may turn out to be mutually exclusive.
In practice, that means the word we are looking for is usually "and". Failing that, try "or".
And be aware that, even where the "and/or" construction is unavoidable and justified, it is always likely to bring its own little grammatical problems with it.
"X and Y" makes a plural, so you need a plural verb ("When Britain and America approach the UN..."). "X or Y" demands a singular verb ("When Britain or America approaches the UN...").
So what happens when "Britain and/or the US" cannot resist approaching the UN?
Neither form of the main verb is going to be right, so you have to find an excuse to sneak in a little modal verb ("cannot" here, or "will", or "must", or "should") which is identical in form, whether the subject is singular or plural.
Get it right, and no-one will notice. Of course. That's the e-editor's lot. But it's better by far to stamp out all three of these phrases if you can. Think of it as doing your bit for generations of English-speakers yet unborn.
At the other extreme, an hour's enforced idleness at Gatwick reminded us of the strange case of Yates's wine lodge.
Mr Yates, or his minions, must know something's needed in the way of apostrophes. But you can almost hear the crisis of confidence happening.
The result, as those who know Yates's will already have noticed, is signage that basically says "Yatess".
But the second "s" is in a raised, smaller, superscript font, with — and here comes a touch of creative genius — a Spanish tilde (like this ~) positioned directly below it.
Remarkable, unprecedented, and certainly not to be imitated. But at least the beer's cheap.
Is this properly "Lynne Truss' book" or "Lynne Truss's book"? asks the great pop pedant and self-publicist of the moment in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
A good question, and one that she settles, via a reference to Fowler's Modern English Usage, with a clear commitment to the more modern "Lynne Truss's book".
Absolutely right. But she didn't need to go to Fowler to find the answer.
For, as residents of Staines, Thorpe and Chertsey, on London's outer western fringes, could have told her, even the road signs in this literate part of the world can get this one right.
There's a little island in the Thames, just downstream from Staines, that must have been named after one of the panda woman's ancestors.
And sure enough, as you drive along the A320, there is the signpost, impeccably apostrophed and proudly perfect, directing today's punctuational pilgrims to "Truss's Island".
Something in our coding or Blogger's technology is giving problems at the moment, with the result that you may lose the archive and other links that should be showing up to the right of the blog entries here.
If you need them, you'll find they've flopped down to the very bottom of the page.
But what's really irritating is that this is an intermittent fault. Like the bogeyman under the bed, whenever you dare to go looking, it isn't there.
There is always something peculiarly annoying about inconsistency. We were looking at some copy today — ordinary, worthy, serious, factual stuff. Every few lines, it mentioned data. And every few lines, it changed its mind about whether to treat "data" as singular or plural.
Now, we're pragmatic about this. We think it's far too late to start using "data" as a plural noun. It smacks of self-conscious pedantry, and the people we know who insist on it aren't the greatest prose stylists we meet.
So we prefer the singular, above all because it does not draw attention to itself and cause the reader to hesitate or break stride.
But what was especially disconcerting here was the way the draft flicked backwards and forwards: one minute "data includes", the next "data are published".
That, of course, makes it instantly clear that the writer does not know what's going on, and is simply trying (and failing) to follow some half-understood rule that has been learned by rote.
It's a confession of both pedantry and ignorance — and that's a particularly inglorious combination in any kind of writing.
Happy New Year, e-editors, writers, sympathisers, employers and onlookers all.
This is probably not the best time to start laying down the law about editing styles and technique, but we do find it hard to resist — especially when real life keeps reminding you about these things.
Take Hogmanay, for example. What kind of a word is that? Not English, obviously. But not Scottish Gaelic, either, if the Oxford Dictionary is to be believed.
The official version is that it's probably derived from the Old French "aguillanneuf", or the Norman French version of that, "hoguinané", both of which, our dictionary says stiffly, "correspond in sense and use" to "hogmanay".
But let the amateurs, the romantics and the Scottish patriots loose on the question of derivation and you get a whole bunch of wildly different answers.
It could be from the Flemish "hoog min dag" ("great love day"), the Anglo-Saxon "haleg monath" ("holy month"), the Gaelic "oge maidne" ("new morning"), or even the French "homme est né" ("man is born") — but we'd bet a groat it isn't.
The interesting thought that's prompted by all this is simply that the familiar all too easily sneaks past, unquestioned, under our noses.
Why has it taken us decades to even wonder what this Hogmanay business was all about? Why didn't it occur to us that it was an inexplicably odd and unguessable word that needed to be looked up by any suitably inquiring e-editor?
A well-thumbed, even worn-out, dictionary is usually a sign of a pretty good copy editor. Those who know most and care most about words generally know enough to know what they don't know. They are always dipping back into the book to confirm spellings or check the underlying meanings that can resonate through into modern English from a word's roots and etymology.
We've even thought of using a candidate's DLSI (dictionary look-up speed index) as a factor when recruiting editors and writers. You know, give each person a list of six words and time how long it takes him or her to look them up in the New Oxford Dictionary of English.
To do this, you'd record the candidate's six-word aggregate time in seconds and subtract this from 200 to give the DLSI. A quick thinker who is used to thumbing through the dictionary many times a day might have a DLSI of 90. Someone who is less familiar with either the book or the alphabet could end up taking three minutes to complete the task, registering a DLSI of just 20.
It may sound barmy, but the dictionary and the alphabet are fundamental tools of the trade. And we've seen plenty of other recruitment and aptitude tests that would tell you a lot less and take a lot longer to administer.